As published in the Quarter 2, 2010 Leoletter. Printed with permission of the Leoletter and Shannon White.
Have you heard the news? Through the dedication and perseverance of some hard working leo folks, the LCA now has our very own draft program! We are planning to hold an LCA draft test at the 2011 national specialty in Rhode Island, and if time allows we hope to also offer an introductory clinic. If you are interested in trying this fun activity, the following is a general guideline for introducing it to your leo.
Getting Started. Preparing your leo for carting/drafting takes time and patience. Going too fast or skipping steps in the preparation can cause problems later on that can take a very long time to retrain. There are a few excellent books and videos on the subject of carting/drafting for more information. This article is intended merely as a brief overview, not as a substitute for a workshop, book or instructional video.
Your dog should be familiar with basic directional commands such as forward, back, left and right, and have a solid grip on basic obedience, as a draft test will often include a basic obedience test as well. I also teach a command for halt, and a “slow” command for future maneuvering through the more intricate parts of the draft test course. All of that should be done before you ever put a harness on your dog.
A word of caution. While you can start the introductory steps on a leo younger than two years old, it is not recommended to draft with a leo under two years old and without OFA x-rays for hip and elbow dysplasia. A leo with hip dysplasia can still cart, but you need to know the health and condition of the hips and elbows before you begin, and the skeleton should be mature with the growth plates closed. That takes at least two years in leonbergers, usually longer for the males.
The Harness. The harness is the first and most important piece of equipment involved in carting or drafting. A poorly fitted harness is uncomfortable to the dog and can actually compromise the dog’s safety, leading to strain and injury to joints, muscles, and ligaments.
There are a couple different styles of harnesses, but I recommend the siwash style carting harness. The siwash style harness has a padded yoke that fits over the dog’s head and lies flat and snug from the point of the withers (the top of the dog’s shoulder blades where the dog’s neck meets the back) down to the point of the forechest (the bony projection in the middle of the dog’s chest in front) on both sides of the dog’s neck. A properly fitted siwash harness evenly distributes the pressure from pulling onto the strong part of the chest and distributes it evenly without placing any strain on the shoulders, allowing full and unrestricted motion of the front assembly.
It is important to fit the harness properly, and this requires careful measuring. Don’t borrow a harness that is too big or too small, and don’t guess when ordering one for your dog. Measure exactly the length from withers to forechest on both sides of the dog’s neck, as illustrated on the Wilczek Woodworks website. (http://www.wilczekwoodworks.com/metrics.php)
As your leo matures and fills out, particularly males, between the ages of 2 and 5, pay close attention to how that harness fits every time you put it on them. The bottom of the yoke needs to land on their forechest bone, not up on their throat, and the top needs to land at their withers, not up on their neck. If you are starting with a young leo that has not had their OFA x-rays yet, you can start with a puppy harness that is intended to grow with your puppy but NOT used for actual drafting. But the fit is still important.
Introducing your leo to the harness should be calm and gentle. It helps if your leo is already familiar with having a variety of collars placed on and taken off his neck, over his head. Let the dog see the harness and sniff it first, and hear the sounds it makes as it clinks. Open the yoke and put your hand through it toward the dog, letting him have a bite of yummy treat. If he will follow your hand with his nose and reach his head toward the harness, give him another treat. Don’t force him, let him figure this part out at his own speed. A clicker can speed this process up if your dog is clicker trained. Once the yoke is on him, pause a moment and reward his cooperation with some more calm praise and yummy treats. Then take it off and repeat this process until he is willingly reaching his head into the harness, or letting you put it over his head without any resistance or stress.
Once the yoke is on and you have ensured the fit is correct, introduce a word command for the process of lifting the dog’s paw and leg through the loop on both sides. Something like “foot” that signals the dog that you are now going to move his leg to help him step through the loop. Be careful that you fold his leg up in a comfortable manner without placing any strain on the joints. I put my hand on the lower foreleg, above the wrist, and just fold the leg upward so that it bends at the elbow against the body with the paw relaxed. This process will need to be done in reverse when removing the harness as well, so keep it calm and gentle.
Adjust the forward and rear girth straps so they are snug but not tight (you should be able to slide your hand flat under the strap against your dog). Walk your leo a little bit while he wears the harness, using quiet praise and food to reward him.
Traces. Once the dog is familiar with the harness being put on and taken off, and is comfortable walking around with it on, the next step is to attach the traces. The traces are the long straps that run from the D-rings at the back of the harness at the dog’s flanks to the cart. The traces MUST be the same length on both sides, so lay them flat on the ground and adjust them to the same length before attaching them to the harness.
There is some differing of opinion as to how to introduce the traces, involving letting the traces drag on the ground first and then attaching something to drag behind the dog (like a milk jug filled with gravel or a small piece of wood). However, I have found that this sequence can actually create distrust in some dogs having something noisy and rattling suddenly on the ground behind them. Therefore, with my own dogs, I introduce the traces differently. What follows is my preferred method of introducing the concept of something being pulled along behind the dog while minimizing any stress associated with the transitions.
I have seen too many dogs at workshops get worried about that thing making noise behind them, and then time must be spent working the dog past that and rebuilding trust that was lost. What I find works better is to initially attach the traces to the harness and have someone the dog knows and trusts walk along a few steps behind the dog just tugging very lightly on the traces while you feed the dog treats and keep them focused on walking forward and earning rewards. This accustoms the dog to feeling the first light pressure on the harness without the worrisome bouncing and rattling of a milk jug or board. Once the dog is comfortable with this stage and focused on the treats, not on the person behind them, then the traces can be allowed to just drag on the ground without anything attached to them, so that the metal snaps on the ends are the only thing making noise and creating some mild friction. It accomplishes the same set of sensations (pressure and sound) without risking the possible suspicion stage.
Some people prefer to proceed next to having the traces attached to a small lightweight plastic sled without runners, as it will glide lightly on the ground behind the dog with minimal noise or friction, and accustom the dog to having something attached to the harness. This step rarely causes any problems that I have seen, however I do not own a sled or saucer (since it rarely snows here in central Virginia), and I have never had any problems skipping it. But I see no harm in it.
Training Wheels. Once the dog is thoroughly familiar and comfortable with wearing the harness, having someone or something behind him, and feeling light pressure on the traces, the next step is to introduce the cart. This is most easily done with a set of training wheels, with the assistance of another person that the dog knows and trusts. Training wheels will be available at workshops, and can be purchased online in leo sizes from people like Bill Wilczek, or they can be homemade using PVC piping, a board, and a set of small wheels such as training wheels for a bicycle. The training wheel set-up should be very lightweight with shaft poles an appropriate length for your leo. The shaft poles should be long enough to allow your dog to take a normal stride without their heels touching the tree.
Introduce the training wheels in the same slow progression. First have the training wheels just resting on the ground. Walk the dog past it several times without calling attention to it. If he shows interest in it, let him sniff it and then walk him on by it. (Don’t let your male leo pee on it!) Then as you walk him past it, pause beside it, feed him a treat, and continue on. Then progress to walking him across the shaft poles, just letting him step over them, earning treats, so that he comes to associate interacting with the poles with getting yummy treats. Then walk him up beside the poles, pause, pick up the poles, feed him a treat, put the poles back down, and walk him away. Repeat this until he pays no attention to the poles being picked up beside him.
The next step is to pause beside the poles, pick them up, give a treat, and walk forward a step or two still holding the poles. So your dog is at your left side, and the training wheel set is on your right side or vice versa. Then set the poles down, give another treat, and walk away. Gradually, once the dog is comfortable with the training wheels moving along on the other side of you, have your helper walk along side the dog with the training wheels, very gently letting the closest pole lightly touch the dog’s side periodically. Just a couple of steps at a time at first, always ending with the poles being put down, the dog getting a treat, and then walked calmly away. Repeat. Do not proceed past this point until the dog is completely at ease with this thing moving next to him and touching his side periodically.
Then and only then it is time to begin letting the shaft poles be on either side of the dog. First start with walking him up to the poles while they’re still resting on the ground, having the dog step between the poles so that he is standing between them facing forward. Then lift the poles on either side of him, giving him a treat, and set them back down again. Then progress to asking him to take a single step forward while you hold the poles in place at his sides, so that the training wheels move forward with him that single step but he is still not hitched. Progress to taking a few more steps forward with the poles held alongside him, increasing the distance as he becomes comfortable with it. Again, do not progress past this until he is thoroughly comfortable with it.
One additional step that helps at this point is to attach the traces again to the harness and have your helper stand behind the training wheels pulling very lightly on the traces as you walk the dog forward holding the training wheel shaft poles at his sides. So he has the poles on both sides of him, feels light pressure on the harness, and is moving forward in a relaxed state. Once he is thoroughly comfortable with this step, then you can finally hitch him to the training wheels and start with one step at a time.
When he is completely at ease with all of the above, you can begin to venture into teaching him to turn or change speeds or back up while hitched. If at any step along the way you encounter resistance, do not progress to the next step. Back up to the point where he was comfortable and move slowly forward as he understands each next step.
Resources. It may seem that drafting is an expensive hobby to take up with your dog, but there are ways to get started and try it out without having to fork over hundreds of dollars. The best way to get started without an initial cash outlay is to find a workshop hosted by a club. Workshops will have experienced people to help you get started, spare harnesses to try on your dog, training wheels and sleds, carts, and other newbies who are also learning. These workshops are often hosted by your local Bernese Mountain Dog Club, Swiss Mountain Dog Club, or Newfoundland Club, and also by Saint Bernard or Rottweiller clubs. We have started organizing regional LCA workshops as well.
The methods and progression through the steps may vary from what is printed in this article, but the general concept should be the same. The introduction should be gentle, slow, and stress-free for the dog and owner alike. And the safety of the dog should always be of primary concern. No sport is worth jeopardizing the dog’s structural integrity or compromising the healthy growth of the skeleton and musculature. Don’t be in a hurry to jump straight to having the dog fully hitched. Though many leos seem naturally inclined to cart with no reservations about any of the steps, they should not be skipped.
One more note worth mentioning is that dogs are individuals. Some dogs will never enjoy carting or drafting, no matter how carefully you progress through the steps. If you find that your leo is one of those dogs, respect that. There are many other activities out there that you two can share. My first leo never got over her suspicion that carts EAT leonbergers, so I did not press the matter with her. She and I enjoyed a wide range of sports and activities instead, and she happily let my other leos do the carting.